Grant Period: Over six months
Shurpanakha is one of the most complex and befuddling characters of the Ramayana. Kolkata-based dancer and choreographer, Ashavari Mazumdar, was struck by the diverse, competing, and even conflicting meanings in the character. This IFA grant will enable Ashavari to create a performance based on Shurpanakha. She has trained under the Kathak maestro Pandit Birju Maharaj and travelled with his group to perform at various venues. She has assisted Birju Maharaj at his dance institute, Kalashram, in Delhi. Ashavari has also choreographed contemporary dance works like Impulse and City.
Ashavari’s systematic and rigorous training in Kathak allows her to explore pure dance movements and codified gestures of the form. At the same time, as a contemporary choreographer with wide exposure to the arts, Ashavari has a critical perspective on Kathak performance practices. She observes that in a Kathak performance, the dancer has to circumscribe her practice to the ashtanayika bhavas, which dissuades her from a large area of exploration into movements. Over and above this, the ashtanayika bhavas are inadequate for presenting the complexities of identities in contemporary times. Secondly, a traditional Kathak performance is Krishna-centric and characters other than Krishna are reduced to performing in support of Krishna’s role. Lastly, the traditional Kathak dance, which is performed to express only certain texts of thumris or bhajans, tends to get monotonous.
Shurpanakha’s enigmatic persona is challenging for a traditional Kathak dancer because it does not appear to exist within the traditional boundaries of the ashtanayika bhavas. Shurpanakha could not be performed like Sita, an embodiment of perfection, truth, sacrifice or within any heroics that the shastrakaras validated as the bhavas. Against this backdrop, Ashavari’s performance of Shurpanakha contested traditional Kathak’s polar understanding of characters as either heroes or non-heroes. Her performance proposes to refer to the ashtanayikas as a counterpoint to Shurpanakha who is outside the classical definitions of a character, but also experiences emotions of heroism like Sita. Her choreography precedes this thinking, and incorporates different readings of Shurpanakha in various versions of the Ramayana: a shape shifting rakshasi, a beautiful woman, an ugly horrendous rakshasi, and a victim of patriarchal norms.
Ashavari makes it clear that she does not intend on making a complete break from the form. She will begin experimenting with movement ideas based on her own reading of different versions of the Ramayana in South Asia. Kathleen M Erndl’s reading of Shurpanakha’s character in The Mutilation of Surpankha triggered brainstorming sessions within the team to develop a narrative for the choreography. The team shall to compose new songs in the local Hindi dialect of Braj, as an alternative to the existing thumris. Ashavari believes that the Shurpanakha performance will give her an opportunity to address concerns about the limited and reductive definition of abhinaya (facial expressions and a rigidly codified set of postures and movements). The performance will premiere at Kolkata in September 2011.